Entertainment » Theatre

The Farnsworth Invention

by Becky Sarwate
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Wednesday Apr 21, 2010
Justine C. Turner and Rob Fagin in a scene from The Farnsworth Invention.
Justine C. Turner and Rob Fagin in a scene from The Farnsworth Invention.  

I have had the good fortune to see and review several TimeLine Theatre Company productions throughout my tenure with EDGE. The Lincoln Park-based group, "dedicated to presenting plays inspired by history that connect to today's social and political issues," however, outdoes itself with a truly fantastic conclusion to its 2009-2010 season. The Chicago premiere of Aaron Sorkin's The Farnsworth Invention is a cornucopia of success at each elemental level required for a great stage experience: technical, performance, direction, writing. The challenge, if there is one presented before a critic in a situation like this, is to look for any perceivable weakness in a near perfect piece of storytelling.

Because despite the historical facts behind Sorkin's drama, TimeLine's rendition of the work does indeed make for a great story. The principal characters and foils in the play, inventor Philo T. Farnsworth (a sympathetic and understated Rob Fagin) and RCA bigwig David Sarnoff (the magnetic PJ Powers, who doubles as TimeLine's Artistic Director), weave their points of view back and forth as the narrative backdrop to the engaging dialogue, which pellets the audience with intellect and wit in Sorkin's signature style. Farnsworth, a relatively uneducated Idaho farmboy, who just happens to possess one of the most brilliant scientific minds in the nation, produces the very first televised image, a cloud of burning smoke from a nearby ashtray. This small step for Farnsworth, as audience members in the 21st century are well aware, is one giant leap for American pop culture - and the advertising and revenue that comes with it.

Does not disappoint
Two scenes from The Farnsworth Invention: (top) PJ Powers and Rob Fagin; (bottom) the ensemble.  

Does not disappoint

The credulous and trusting Philo relies on the code of the true scientist, a sort of learned "Freedom of Information Act," if you will. That, and a little alcohol problem make Farnsworth easy prey for the self-proclaimed "first" media mogul, the colorful Sarnoff, a man who is rendered human in his quest to control the earning power of television, by his paradoxical desire to keeps the airwaves "cultured" and unsullied by advertising.

This historical drama is "about" so many things: a chronicle of U.S. industrial and cultural history, an examination of the rules of engagement in corporate espionage, an intriguing look at the dynamics of marriage amongst the intelligentsia. Playwright Sorkin (TVs The West Wing) neatly packages so much great material into the script, without ever leaving the impression of clutter. Whether a theatergoer is looking for suspense, romance or a little education, the Farnsworth Invention does not disappoint.

Under the nimble direction of Nick Bowling, TimeLine’s founding artistic director, the play unfolds with a natural ease that belies its dialogue heavy nature. Every performer is perfectly cast. Scenic, light and sound design are of the highest quality, unforced accomplices in harnessing a combination of charm and utilitarianism. John Culbert (Scenic Design), Keith Parham (Lighting) and Kevin O’Donnell (Sound) take advantage of the quaint nostalgia inherent in the dawn of the 1950s American Media Age, to create a deceptively high tech set. Thus the theater’s small area is rendered large through the use of quick changes, cuts and the maximum use of elevated space. Credit in creating this magical, fast moving world is owed to the technical leaders and Bowling’s astute management of these forces.

However, the production is far from overshadowed by the wizardry of its technical configurations. Fagin and Powers, as Farnsworth and Sarnoff, are tremendous in their respective roles. Both deeply flawed men, Farnsworth a naive but brilliant booze hound, Sarnoff a sharp business mind with a giant streak of bs, come alive for the audience through the masterful portrayals of the two actors. The amount of dialogue the men had to memorize is simply staggering, but this fact is easy to forget in the organic unfolding of the drama. Acting in the dual roles of narrators and characters, the success of the overall production rests on Fagin and Powers shoulders.

The maximized set design is not the only economical use of capital in setting the stage. Aside from Farnsworth and Sarnoff, the remaining cast of more than 70 characters is played by a winning ensemble that includes Bridgette Pechman and Justine C. Turner, as Pem Farnsworth and Lizette Sarnoff, the imposing women behind the historically important men. Paul Dunckel assumes a number of small roles, but nearly steals the show in a brief, but hilarious turn as early 20th century film actor Douglas Fairbanks. One might be tempted to assume that the use of a small group of actors to flesh out a large cast could get confusing, but that is surprisingly inaccurate. Major credit goes to each member of the company for their virtuoso abilities to become, literally, a different person in each scene.

The show has a two hour, twenty minute running time, with a 10-minute intermission. Due to a sprinkling of salty language throughout the performance, it may be wise to leave the littlest ones at home, but there is not much to object to for older children and teens. In fact, the play is a truly engaging behind the scenes look at an important invention that we take for granted not 60 years after its debut. The television screen is so ingrained into our daily lives: the old fashioned living room model, the computer screen, smart phone, iPod. The Farnsworth Invention takes audiences on a journey to recapture the excitement, the sense of possibility in developing something that no one quite understands yet.

TimeLine’s final offering of the season is a must-see.

The Farnsworth Invention runs through June 13, 2010 at TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington Chicago.

Performance schedule:: Wednesday-Thursday at 7:30pm;Friday at 8pm; Saturday at 4pm and 8pm; Sunday at 2pm. Info phone: 773-281-8463, ext. 24. For more information visit the TimeLine Theatre Web site

Becky Sarwate is the President of the Illinois Woman's Press Association, founded in 1885. She's also a part-time freelance writer, award-winning columnist and blogger who lives in the Ravenswood neighborhood of Chicago with her partner Bob and their pet menagerie . Keep up with Becky at http://www.beckysarwate.com


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